N.C. body allegedly tried to illegally land pension benefits

Cameron Smith

No matter where in the country anyone lives, now is not the time for appointed officials to be skimming funds away from public sources. That appears to be precisely what the head of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association was doing with the cooperation of a smaller school district, with the end goal of increasing NCHSAA associated commissioner Rick Strunk's pension benefits.

Rick Strunk (NCHSAA.org)
Rick Strunk (NCHSAA.org)

As reported by the News & Observer, NCHSAA commissioner Davis Whitfield and Strunk openly devised a plan through which Strunk would qualify as a pensioned employee by remaining an employee of the Chatham County School System. While NCHSAA employees had always received pensions when the state governing body was controlled and overseen by the University of North Carolina system, that changed in June 2010 when the NCHSAA became an independent 501(c)3 organization.

That shift inspired Strunk to find another way to continue contributing to the North Carolina Teachers' and State Employees' Retirement System so he would continue earning retirement benefits after the NCHSAA moved way from University of North Carolina control. The solution to that issue appeared to be an arrangement with Chatham County Schools, though such an agreement -- in which Strunk was technically employed by the Chatham schools but was an NCHSAA employee -- was in direct conflict with the state's prior ruling that NCHSAA employees were no longer eligible for retirement benefits.

Strunk's salary and benefits were no small matter, either. The associate commissioner reportedly earns some $99,028 per year after gaining 26 years of service with the organization. That total would have brought Strunk back a significant return in pension funds based on his years of service.

"There was certainly no intent to deceive," Whitfield told the News & Observer. "Our board of directors was involved as was the Board of Education in Chatham County. Their legal counsel reviewed everything. We thought we had thoroughly vetted the arrangement."

Indeed, the onus appears to have shifted away from Strunk as multiple members of the NCHSAA hierarchy have all stepped forward to acknowledge that they were aware of the governing body's arrangement with the associate commissioner.

"There was never any attempt to hide anything," Brooks Matthews, the president of the NCHSAA board of directors to the News & Observer. "We acted in good faith, and we thought we had investigated thoroughly. We had no idea this arrangement could create a problem."

It proved to be a significant problem, and now is precisely the kind of issue that can turn a wary public eye toward a public body that otherwise would escape practically all second guesses. The question now is whether the NCHSAA is pulled into further disrepute by a contention from the state auditor's office that the organization was intentionally trying to deceive the North Carolina public system.

"Obviously, we disagree with the opinion that we were trying to be deceitful," Whitfield said. "We have been honest and open and will continue to cooperate."

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